Unless the story to be told is not that of Roberto but of his papers—though here, too, all must be based on conjecture.
If the papers (fragmentary, in any case, from which I have devised a story, or a series of intersecting or skewed stories) have come down to us, it is because the Daphne did not burn entirely. That much is obvious. Who knows, perhaps the fire barely singed the masts, then died out on that windless day. Or else—there is nothing to prevent us from believing this— a few hours later a torrential rain fell and extinguished the blaze....
How long was the Daphne there before someone found it and discovered Roberto’s writings? I can venture two hypotheses, both fruit of the imagination.
As I have already mentioned, a few months before these events, in February 1643 to be exact, Abel Tasman—having set out from Batavia in August of 1642, then after reaching Van Diemen’s Land, later to become Tasmania, seeing New Zealand only from a distance and heading for the Tongas (already reached in 1615 by Schouten and Le Maire and named the Coconut Islands and the Traitors Islands), then proceeding north—discovered a series of little sand-girt islands, recording them at 17.19 degrees latitude south and 201.35 degrees longitude. We will not go into the matter of longitude here, but those islands, which he named Prins Willelms Eijlanden, if my hypotheses are correct, should not have been far from the Island of our story.
Tasman ends his voyage, he says, in June, and hence before the Daphne could have arrived in those parts. But we cannot be sure that Tasman’s diaries are reliable (and, indeed, the original no longer exists).
Let us try to imagine, then, that through one of those fortuitous detours in which his voyage is so rich, he returned to the area, say in September of that year, and discovered there the Daphne. No hope of repairing it, without sails and rigging as it was by then. He inspected it, to learn its origin, and came upon Roberto’s papers.
Though his knowledge of Italian was poor, he realized that the papers included some discussion of the problem of longitudes, so they had to be considered highly secret, to be delivered only to the Dutch East India Company. Therefore in his own diary he says nothing about the matter and perhaps falsifies the dates to eliminate traces of his adventure. Thus Roberto’s papers end up in some secret archive. Tasman made another voyage the next year, and God only knows where he went.
Let us imagine the Dutch geographers leafing through those papers. As we know, there was nothing of interest to be found in them, except perhaps Dr. Byrd’s canine method, which—I am willing to bet—several spies must have ferreted out already from various sources. There is mention of the Specula Melitensis, but we must remember that, after Tasman, one hundred thirty-eight years had to go by before Cook rediscovered those islands, which would never have been rediscovered by following Tasman’s directions.
Then, finally, and a century after our story, Harrison’s invention of the marine chronometer puts an end to the frantic search for the Punto Fijo. The problem of longitude is no longer a problem, and some archivist of the Company, eager to clear his cupboards, discards, gives away, sells—who knows? —Roberto’s papers, now a mere curiosity for some maniacal collector of manuscripts.
The second hypothesis is more like a novel, enthralling. In May 1789 a fascinating character passes through those parts. He is Captain Bligh, whom the mutineers of the Bounty had loaded into a sloop with eighteen loyal men, entrusting them to the mercy of the waves.
That exceptional man, whatever his defects of character may have been, manages to sail more than six thousand kilometers and land finally at Timor. In carrying out this enterprise, he skirts the Fiji archipelago, almost arrives at Vanua Levu, and crosses the Yasawa group. This means that if he had deviated only slightly to the east, he could easily have landed somewhere around Taveuni, where I like to think our Island can be found. And if evidence is to be enlisted in the question of believing or not believing, well, I am assured that an Orange Dove or Flame Dove or, better, a Ptilinopus Victor exists only there—but at the risk of spoiling the whole story, I must add that the orange bird is the male of the species.
Now a man like Bligh, if he had found the Daphne in barely reasonable condition, arriving there in a mere sloop, would have done everything possible to put the vessel in shape. But by now almost a century and a half had passed. Some storms had further racked the hull, disanchored it, the ship had keeled over on the coral reef—or no, it had been caught by the current, drawn north, and flung on other shoals or on the rocks of a nearby island, where it lay exposed to the work of time.
Probably Bligh boarded a phantom vessel, its bulwarks encrusted with shells, green with seaweed, water stagnating in its riven hold, a refuge of mollusks and poisonous fish.
Perhaps, rickety, the quarterdeck survived, and in the captain’s cabin, dry and dusty—or no, damp and rotting but still legible—Bligh found Roberto’s papers.
These were no longer times of great anguish over longitudes, but perhaps he was attracted by the references, in an unknown language, to the Islands of Solomon. Almost ten years earlier, a certain Monsieur Buache, Geographer to the King and of the French navy, had presented a paper to the Academy of Sciences on the subject of the Existence and Position of the Islands of Solomon, asserting that they were none other than that Bay of Choiseul that Bougainville found in 1768 (and whose description seemed to conform to the ancient one of Mendana) and the Terres des Arsacides found in 1769 by Surville. So while Bligh was still at sea, an anonymous writer, probably Monsieur de Fleurieu, was about to publish a book entitled Decouvertes des Fratifois en 1768 & 1769 dans k Sud-Est de la Nouvelle Gmnee.
I do not know whether Bligh had read Monsieur Buache, but surely in the English navy there was irritated talk of that piece of arrogance on the part of their French cousins, who boasted of having found the unfindable. The French were right, but Bligh might not have known that, or wished it. He could therefore have conceived the hope of having got his hands on a document which not only gave the lie to the French but would proclaim him discoverer of the Islands of Solomon.
I would imagine that, first, he mentally thanked Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers for having set him brutally on the road to glory; then he decided, good patriot that he was, to keep quiet with everyone about his little detour eastwards and his discovery, and to deliver the papers to the Admiralty in strictest confidence.
But in this case, too, someone must have considered them of little interest, of no value as evidence, and—again—exiled the papers among bundles of erudite rubbish for litterateurs. Bligh gives up the Islands of Solomon, is content with being named admiral for his other undeniable virtues as a navigator, and will die equally content, unaware that Hollywood will make him odious to all posterity.
And so, if the narrative continued according to either one of my hypotheses, such an end would not be worthy of narration, it would leave every reader discontent and frustrated. In this way Roberto’s story would not inspire any moral lesson—and we would still be wondering why what happened to him happened to him—concluding that in life things happen because they happen, and it is only in the Land of Romances that they seem to happen for some purpose or providence.
For if I had to draw a conclusion from it, I would go and rummage again among Roberto’s papers to find a note, dating surely from those nights when he still worried about a possible Intruder. That evening Roberto was looking yet again at the sky. He was remembering how at La Griva, when the family chapel had collapsed with age, that Carmelite tutor of his, who had had experience in the East, advised rebuilding the little chapel in Byzantine style, a round form with a central dome, which had nothing at all to do with the style to which they were accustomed in the Monferrato. And old Pozzo, refusing to stick his nose into matters of art and religion, heeded the advice of the holy man.
Seeing the antipodal sky, Roberto realized that at La Griva, in a landscape surrounded on every side by hills, the heavenly vault appeared to him like the dome of the chapel, clearly denned by the brief circle of the horizon, with one or two constellations that he could identify; so while he knew that the spectacle changed from one week to the next, he never realized, since he went to sleep early, that it changed even in the course of the same night. And therefore that dome had always seemed to him stable and round, and consequently he conceived the Universe as stable and round.
At Casale, in the center of a plain, he saw that the sky was more vast that he had believed, but Padre Emanuele convinced him to imagine the stars as described by concepts rather than to look at those above his head.
Now, antipodal spectator of the infinite expanse of an ocean, he saw a boundless horizon rise. And above his head he observed constellations never seen before. Those of his hemisphere he had read according to patterns others had established—here the polygonal symmetry of the Wain, there the alphabetic exactitude of Cassiopeia. But on the Daphne he had no pre-established patterns, he could join any point to any other, derive the outlines of a serpent, a giant, locks of hair, or the tail of a poisonous insect, and then dismantle them and essay other forms.
In France and Italy he observed even in the sky a landscape denned by the hand of a monarch who had fixed the lines of the postal services and the roads, leaving between them stands of forest. Here, on the contrary, Roberto was a pioneer in an unknown land, and he had to decide by which paths he would connect a peak to a lake, without any criterion of choice, because there were not yet cities and villages on the slopes of the one or on the shores of the other. Roberto did not simply gaze at the constellations: he was obliged to define them. He was alarmed that the whole was disposed as a spiral, a snail shell, a vortex.
It is at this point that he recalls a church, quite new, seen in Rome—and this is the only time he allows us to imagine that he has visited that city, perhaps before his journey to Provence. The church seemed to him very different both from the dome at La Griva and from the naves, geometrically arranged in ogives and cross vaults, of the churches at Casale. Now he understood why: it was as if the vault of that church were an austral sky, which lured the eyes to essay ever new lines of flight, never resting on a central point. Wherever you stood under that cupola, when you looked up, you felt always at the edge.
He realized now that in a less specific, less obviously theatrical fashion, experienced through little surprises day after day, this sensation of Repose Denied was something he had known first in Provence, then in Paris, where everyone he encountered somehow destroyed a certitude of his, each proposing a different map of the world, but the various proposals never cohered into a finite design.
He heard of machines that could alter the order of natural phenomena, so what was heavy rose and what was light sank, so that fire would moisten and water burn, as if the very Creator of the Universe were capable of revising Himself and could finally compel plants and flowers to disobey the seasons, and the seasons to engage in a struggle with time.
If the Creator consented to change His mind, did an order that He had imposed on the Universe still exist? Perhaps He had imposed many, from the beginning; perhaps He was prepared to change them day by day; perhaps a secret order existed, presiding over the constant change of orders and perspectives, but we were destined never to discover it, to follow instead the shifting play of those appearances of order that were reordered at every new experience.
Then the story of Roberto della Griva would be merely the tale of an unhappy lover, condemned to live beneath an exaggerated sky, a man unable to reconcile himself to the idea that the earth wandered along an ellipse of which the sun was only one of the fires.
Which, as many will agree, is too little to make a story with a proper beginning and a proper end.
Finally, if from this story I wanted to produce a novel, I would demonstrate once again that it is impossible to write except by making a palimpsest of a rediscovered manuscript —without ever succeeding in eluding the Anxiety of Influence. Nor could I elude the childish curiosity of the reader, who would want to know if Roberto really wrote the pages on which I have dwelt far too long. In all honesty, I would have to reply that it is not impossible that someone else wrote them, someone who wanted only to pretend to tell the truth. And thus I would lose all the effect of the novel: where, yes, you pretend to tell true things, but you must not admit seriously that you are pretending.
I would not even know how to come up with a final event whereby these letters fell into the hands of him who presumably gave them to me, extracting them from a miscellany of other defaced and faded manuscripts.
“The author is unknown,” I would, however, expect him to say. “The writing is graceful, but as you see, it is discolored, and the pages are covered with water-stains. As for the contents, from the little I have seen, they are mannered exercises. You know how they wrote in that century.... People with no soul.”
many people—the author, first of all—have been of inestimable help in the preparation of this English text. I would like in particular to thank Nicholas Adams of Vassar College and Silvio Bedini of the Smithsonian Institution. I am indebted to my colleagues at Bard College, Elizabeth Frank, Daniel Freed-man, Frederick Hammond, William Mullen, and Hope Kone-chny; to Pietro Corsi of the Nuova Rivista dei Libn, Florence; Antonio Clericuzio of the Universita di Cassino; Mara Miniati of the Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence; and Valentina Pisanty and Alasdair McEwan, Milan.
This translation is dedicated to the cherished memory of Francis Steegmuller.